The changing nature of work: what does tomorrow’s workforce look like?

Courtesy Queensland University of Technology

There’s plenty of uncertainty about what new technology really means for the traditional workforce — but there are benefits of significance on the horizon for every Queenslander.

The state is on a journey of reshaping and reformation thanks to the emergence of digitisation and technological mega-trends that all current — and future — job seekers will one day consider to be part of the every day.

As the leader of CSIRO’s Data61 Strategic Foresight Team, Dr Stefan Hajkowicz delivers harsh statistics around the future of the local workforce with comfortable ease.

“There’s solid data to predict that the future automation of jobs will impact at least half of all current jobs as we know them today,” Dr Hajkowicz said.

“And of that, 14 per cent of all jobs will simply be lost and made completely redundant.”

Lead author, CSIRO Data 61 ‘The Innovation Imperative’ report, Dr Hajkowicz. Courtesy Dr Hajkowicz.

As one of the lead authors of the CSIRO Data 61 ‘The Innovation Imperative’ report, Dr Hajkowicz outlines technology, emerging global markets, demographics, digitisation, cultural change and other mega-trends as the key sectors that will reshape Queensland over the coming two decades.

“There’s an estimated 860,000 jobs that are likely to be impacted by the advances in these sectors — but they’ll also create up to one million new jobs over the next twenty years — and that’s what we need to focus on,” he said.

“Nationwide there’ll be more than 160-thousand jobs created over the next decade in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector alone — that’s a lot of jobs.

“Now we have to ensure we invest in the right industries to support these changes. It’s very hard to predict the definite successes of industries that are still growing, but Queensland is at a crossroads and the time to make significant commitments at scale is now.

“There’s a fine balance to be created between properly transitioning a workforce likely to become redundant and supporting new industries — but that balance must be reached for Queensland to continue to invest wisely and support the architecture that will allow digital business to grow.

“If you were born in the 1990s or prior, you needed solid numeracy and literacy skills to progress in gaining employment. But any time after that? Being digitally and technically literate is now a fundamental baseline expectation for any job, regardless of the sector.”

It’s a statement that rings true for the team at Watkins Steel.

Opening its doors in the northern suburbs of Brisbane in the late 1960s — originally under the Watkins family home — the company has become a specialist in structural steel and metalwork fabrication.

Since 1968, Watkins Steel has moved factories every 10 years, doubling the size of the factory every time to meet demand.

But the Watkins Steel story is no good luck yarn. It’s a story of innovation and foresight.

Prior to the slow death of large-scale car manufacturing in Australia, the man at the helm of Watkins Steel — Des Watkins — saw the writing on the wall and started investigating computerisation, automation and augmented reality (AR) technologies.

Courtesy Watkins Steel.

Initially the main aim was to shorten manufacturing times in steel fabrication and today, the core aim remains the same according to Des Watkins.

“The future of our work is based on risk mitigation and speed, not man hours per tonne and price,” he said.

“Risk mitigation and speed is about automation, robotics, digitalisation and IT, and we’re implementing it all in-house and on-site.

“We’ve developed an end-to-end digital workflow for steel fabrication and installation that’s completely unique to our brand and business. This process significantly reduces human error and guess work, as well as decreases rectification work that costs money and time on construction projects of all sizes.”

It’s a journey Watkins Steel has taken all its employees on, ensuring no trade got left behind as technology sped up.

Ben Yu started with Watkins Steel in 2006 as a boiler maker.

“I worked in the factory and then building sites for four years and then was supported to study Project Management,” Mr Yu said.

“These days my focus is around business development as well as research and development within the industry; but every piece of technology or software we implement is always tested against experience on the floor and knowing what the issues are.

“One of the main things we’re focusing on is using robotics to streamline processes and reduce waste. The construction industry is under a lot of pressure to reduce waste and technology is helping us to achieve that — it’s an incredible time to be in the industry.

“I’m very fortunate to be in the position I am today — I definitely didn’t expect to be here when I started life as a boiler maker. But when you look at the progression of industrial technology and how the skill sets are changing there really is a position for everyone if you’re willing to learn and try new things.”

Fellow Watkins Steel employee, Rueben Wilson tells a similar story.

“I’ve only been with the company a year and came to them with a background in structural steel and on-site rigging,” Mr Wilson said.

“My role now as a Senior Draftsman couldn’t be more different to where I started. 15 years ago, I would never have seen myself working in an office! I was used to physical labour out in the sun and I never saw that changing at the time.

“But as Des (Watkins) is always telling us, change is inevitable — your options are to change with it or get left behind.

“In construction especially, change is only going to continue to happen faster from here on in. Every IT or robotics meeting we have, we find out about something new or decide to trial a new process — it really is a ‘choose your own adventure’ sort of scenario!”

Choosing your own adventure is infinitely easier in the workforce with a leader like Des Watkins. The Managing Director states that the greatest resource he can give his key staff is ‘trust and a credit card’.

Courtesy Watkins Steel.

As part of professional development supported by the company, Ben Yu and Rueben Wilson recently travelled to Las Vegas to attend two major industry conferences.

“It was incredible to see what the rest of the world is doing but also a great confidence boost to us when we compared it to what we’re doing in Banyo,” Mr Yu said.

“We are really proud of what we do, but even more so when we tell people from America the processes we’ve got in place and you can see how amazed they are.

“We’re getting better and better and with that, creating interest in Queensland as a state to do business with and gaining a lot of work interest from interstate — the opportunities are endless.

“In five to 10 years’ time our company will have a fully automated workshop and our technical company will be working on a global level as a cutting-edge business in construction design for the industrial sector.

“It’s a big statement, but 10 years ago the idea of robotics in the steel sector seemed far fetched too. It’s a mindset that’s going to take us beyond where we just need to be, but where we can make the most change for the most good.”

The changing nature of work: what does tomorrow’s workforce look like? was originally published in Advance Queensland on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Last updated 17 Sep, 2019
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